It is all about art and it is all about the public
Dr. Chantel Eschenfelder with the workshop participants. © Julian Manjahi
Dr. Chantal Eschenfelder leads the Education and Communication Department at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, one of Germany’s most renowned museums, where she focuses on Digital Strategies. In October 2018, she facilitated the workshop “Art Education: Strategies in the Digital Age” at the Goethe-Institut in Nairobi, Kenya as part of the exhibition project “Sasa Nairobi”. During the workshop, she discussed different possibilities of analogue and digital art mediation with Kenyan artists and curators.
Interviewer: Dr. Eschenfelder, it is your first time in Nairobi, but also in Kenya. What surprised you the most?
Chantal Eschenfelder: What surprised me is that the high-rise buildings are nearly the same as in Frankfurt, so we have something in common. And, well it is not very surprising, but I love the people here. Most of them are so friendly and kind and it is really fun to talk to everyone.
Interviewer: In Germany, you are in charge of the mediation and art education programmes at the Städel Museum. Now, you have spent a whole week with Kenyan artists and curators who participated in the workshop. What did you learn from these encounters?
Chantal Eschenfelder: Oh, I learnt a lot! Especially about the perspectives of education and how different education systems and teaching styles influence your behaviour. For example, in art education, we often use different educational methods which focus on dialogue and debate. But if you address people with a background in an educational system which does not encourage people to speak up but rather requires to follow what their teacher tells them to do, it might be more difficult to engage them as your audience in these conversational education methods. But I also saw that, even if they do not have the financial means to do big projects, artists in Nairobi organize many social projects like the ones in Kibera. And by doing such artistic projects–as for example with kids–art becomes more appreciated.
Interviewer: During the workshop, you visited many different art spaces such as art collectives–like Kuona Trust and Masai Mbili–but also institutions like the National Museum. In which way did these visits fuel your discussions with the participants of the workshop? And which art education strategies did the participants find useful for their work in Kenya?
Chantal Eschenfelder: We had a lot of discussions about defining the official art scene in Nairobi and comparing it to the more “off”- art scene. As always, the most interesting things – artistically speaking – happen in these off-spaces, the studios and cooperatives. So, we therefore had many discussions about the goals of art education and about what an artist has to do, what the role of a gallery can be and what the role of a museum is in comparison. Furthermore, we discussed examples of art education projects in Europe to see what could be done in Kenya but also to find out what is already being done. For example, these workshops for kids in Kibera are very similar to some projects we do in Frankfurt with refugees. In sum, I would say that we really had an intensive exchange. As it turned out, our ideas were quite similar in the end.
© Julian Manjahi Interviewer: Generally speaking, how do you think can digital strategies make exhibitions more accessible for the general public, not only in Kenya and Germany but around the world?
Chantal Eschenfelder: The main advantage is clearly the global scope. As you can reach out with your content, you can speak to much more people than only those who already come to the exhibitions. Through the topic of an exhibition, you might be able to connect to people who might, on first sight, not be interested in art but the topic and thus build a bridge. A second advantage is that you can give more individualized information, as you can do projects where you can provide information on various levels. For example, you can create a tool where visitors can click on if they want to learn more about a specific topic. Thereby, it is much more individualized, which again allows to address the individual needs and educational backgrounds of a diverse audience.
Interviewer: Now getting to a trickier question which is about the current debate which is taking place in Africa and Europe about the restitution of cultural artefacts held by European museums to their countries of origin. Since these issues still seem far from being resolved, do you think that digital formats can be a way of making those objects accessible?
Chantal Eschenfelder: Even though I am convinced that digital access is not the solution to this really complex problem, I believe that it might at least be a means to make information accessible. In my opinion, the main mistake that institutions in western societies made is that they do not only possess these objects for historical and colonial reasons but that they also do not make information on these objects accessible to the public. At least, the visitors should be informed to be able to judge by themselves. If you have a digital collection, however, you can give information on the provenance of the object and everyone in the world can see it. There are many museums that don’t even know where their objects come from because there is no archive material. But if you create an online database, maybe someone from another country or continent knows where the object could have been acquired–or stolen for that matter. I think that the digital spreading of knowledge about these objects can be the first step. On a second level, you have to get into a discussion about how to get along with the question of restitution. This is a really complex question consisting of various perspectives that must be considered. For example, you cannot simply send the objects back, as there have now already been many museums on the African continent stating that they do neither have the space nor the conditions for preservation. We urgently need to start a broader and deeper discussion but I believe that this can start on a digital basis.
Interviewer: What is your dream project that you would like to implement one day?
Chantal Eschenfelder: I would love to combine the digital and the analogue world more closely. Not in the form of a chat, because chats are sometimes very basic in technical terms. But maybe in the future we will have totally different kinds of techniques which will allow us to exchange ideas with the wider public which is not necessarily present in the museum. That way, we could have activities and discussions going on around the objects in a much more flexible way. It is all about art and it is all about the public. And you have to get those two worlds together. I think that techniques are offering–now already and hopefully even more in the future–more possibilities to get into contact.
Interviewer: What inspires you to do your everyday work?
Chantal Eschenfelder: What inspires me is actually the art itself. And then, if you talk to people, you learn so much! You also learn what the relevant questions are. And if you then turn back to the artworks, you can see what is already there and where you can build bridges, where you could develop methods and educational tools so that people can find their own way through the arts and the art works. Thinking more in the direction of artists, I like to discover what artists did and not only contemporary artists but also in earlier epochs. For example, we will soon have an exhibition about painting in Venice at the time of Titian. People might think that this was long ago, but he really was an inventor–all we know about colour today is maybe because of him. So, every time you do an exhibition, even if it is about an artist who lived a long time ago, you have to discover something new from today’s perspective. This is the kind of thing that inspires me.
Interviewer: Coming back to your time in Kenya, what are you planning to see while staying in Nairobi?
Chantal Eschenfelder: I will visit the National Park. I do not have so much time, but I would like to see a bit more than only the city. A bit of nature, and maybe one animal or two. But I also love to just walk around and visit the exhibitions here and the artists’ studios.
Interviewer: One last question: What is your favourite Kenyan dish?
Chantal Eschenfelder: I think it is called “Ugali Fries”. I ate it in a restaurant called Nyama Mama and I just love it!